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The marginalisation of Kasturba Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi himself said that he learnt his satyagraha from Ba. Why then has history, public memory and even the women’s movement kept Kasturba in the shadow of the Mahatma, with no identity independent of him, asks Biju Negi as he celebrates Kasturba Jayanti


April 11 came and went. There were no reports of central or state government offices having garlanded Kasturba Gandhi’s photographs (whether they had one was itself doubtful) or spoken a few words in her praise. Nor were there any announcements of any new initiatives, programmes or plans for women’s development. There were no reports of any Kasturba-related programmes organised by civil society either.

And why talk of others! Even within the Sarvodaya Mandals, public celebrations of Kasturba’s birthday are not regular annual events. It is possible that Sarvodaya district units may remember her on this day, but there is no public gathering, no prayer meeting conducted. Our own district unit, the Sarvodaya Mandal, Dehra Dun, does not have a history of celebrating this day.

This may be because in our collective consciousness, the image of Kasturba is inextricably linked with Gandhi. Just as we cannot imagine Radha without Krishna. So, when we celebrate or observe October 2, Gandhi Jayanti, we probably retain the collective image of Bapu and Ba, and when we remember Gandhi, we assume we have remembered Kasturba as well.

Does Kasturba have no existence independent of Gandhi?

Indeed, when the idea and proposal of celebrating this day was first mooted at our Sarvodaya Mandal, the most immediate and common response was, “Kasturba’s birthday? When?” As if we cannot think of her having any birth date other than October 2. Which is why most of us do not know that Kasturba’s birthday falls almost six months earlier than Gandhi’s, on April 11. Nor do we know that she was exactly that many days older to Mohandas.

Does Kasturba have no identity independent of Gandhi?

Kasturba’s existence and identity are social questions that should have been our concern. And that was possibly why the two places we celebrated Kasturba Jayanti at were a girls’ school and a meeting jointly organised with a women’s organisation. Right at the beginning we were confronted with this troubling observation: The schoolgirls knew that it was Kasturba Jayanti because that was what was neatly chalked onto the classroom blackboards. But to the question of who was Kasturba, all girls replied in one voice, “The wife of Mahatma Gandhi.”

Later that morning, together with a women’s organisation Mahila Samakhya we had organised a discussion on the theme ‘Kasturba: A Pillar in Gandhian Thought’. But as at the school, almost all the participants stated that it was the first time in their lives they were attending a Kasturba Jayanti and confessed that they did not know much about her.

Our oral history and collective memory has steadily but surely marginalised Kasturba, and no one has truly questioned that. Even our documented history has not adequately evaluated Kasturba. In no book has she emerged as a heroine. Be it the peaceful resistance against apartheid in South Africa or our own freedom struggle or the austere and difficult ashram life, Kasturba performed her diverse roles with a quiet dignity, always remaining in the background. And that is where our historians have chosen to keep her as well.  Society too has not generally sought to know more about her, even as the apostle of peace and nonviolence Gandhi had more than once stated that it was Kasturba that he learnt his satyagraha from. At another place, he has written that “Among those who came in close contact with me and Ba, there were more people who reposed their faith and respect in Ba than in me.”

We are far too used to seeing Kasturba in the shadow of Mahatma Gandhi and are content with that. That she was or could have been an individual with her own mind and identity, we are not willing to consider even in these times of women’s emancipation.

But just think. Kasturba and Gandhi were merely 13-14 years old when they were married in 1883. Coming from the same town, Porbandar, where Mohandas’ father was the diwan of the state and Kasturba’s a prosperous businessman, both families knew each other from before. It is possible that Kasturba and Mohandas played together in childhood. Remember, Kasturba was the elder by about six months and so it is eminently possible and entirely natural for them to have arguments and differences of opinion; and as a couple both often did have quarrels. It was not as if Kasturba submissively accepted everything than Mohandas said. She had her own opinion on which she would stand her ground and it was not possible for Mohandas to easily force his decisions on her.

It remained so in later years as well. To get her to agree, Mohandas had to reason with Kasturba and win her trust; and indeed, Kasturba too, once convinced, would totally support the thought and plan. Perhaps this is what Gandhi considered his first lessons in satyagraha. He realised that he cannot ram his thoughts on others, but remaining steadfast, must touch the hearts and minds of others and thereby draw them to his way.

Hundreds of people visited the ashram every day. The ashram’s management was in Kasturba’s hands and we do not read of the logistics or any arrangement there ever failing. Whoever came to the ashram would not leave without meeting Ba, and she too would make sure that no one returned hungry. The smooth running of the ashram was a key to the successful independence movement. This has not been looked into or properly appreciated – just as a wife’s or mother’s role in a common household is never evaluated for its contribution to the making of a home and family.

Kasturba was a devoted wife and a devoted mother – her motherhood extending to the thousands who came to the ashram. And she was a dedicated freedom fighter and social reformer. Her entire life was one of love, sacrifice and silence. And she even died as a true freedom fighter – in jail.

After the launch of the Quit India Movement on August 9, 1942, Gandhi and Kasturba were arrested within a day or so of each other, and confined to the Aga Khan Palace in Poona (Pune). There, on February 22, 1944, after long years of physical hardship and illness, Kasturba breathed her last in Gandhi’s lap. After her cremation, Gandhi said, “I cannot imagine my life without Ba.”

Recalling India’s freedom struggle, how many women can we name who were part of it? Other than Kasturba, we can easily name Mira Behn, Sarla Behn, Sarojini Naidu…. but the list may not go beyond a dozen or two. Whereas it was one of the great credits to this freedom movement that it drew hundreds of thousands of women out of their homes and onto the streets. And whose contributions were made both at home and outside.

Indeed, Kasturba is the symbol of those hundreds of thousands of unknown women freedom fighters whose sacrifices have not been adequately understood, appreciated and evaluated and whose role will be lost, sooner rather than later. Our celebration of Kasturba Jayanti was to keep alive the memory of those faceless, nameless women.

The Rajkiya Balika Uchchtar Madhyamik Vidyalay in Dehra Dun has decided to  celebrate Kasturba Jayanti every year from now on. A professor at the women’s studies centre at a college said she will encourage future studies on Kasturba and women freedom fighters. Some others drew a parallel with the Uttarakhand state formation movement that had been largely carried on the shoulders of Matri Shakti, but where 10 years into the state formation, all women are forgotten.

Hopefully, future generations will research, speak and do justice to this aspect of our history and correct its shortcoming.

(Biju Negi is a writer, sustainable agriculture consultant and member of Beej Bachao Andolan)

Infochange News & Features, April 2012